By Hillel Aron

Staff Reporter

An anti-xenophobia initiative got off to a rocky start when residents in Dunoon, where the programme was launched, refused to sign a pledge condemning attacks on foreigners.

Unite As One, a collaboration between four NGOs - the Black Sash, the Scalibrini Centre, People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (Passop) and Sonke - aims to collect one million signatures in time for African Human Rights Day on October 17. The pledge is not only to be tolerant of all Africans, but also to "prevent any acts of xenophobia - intolerance, intimidation or violence; and to report to the police if any person violates the rights or safety of another".

Dunoon was chosen as the site of the campaign's launch because of its role as the epicentre of xenophobic violence in 2008. The press were initially told that volunteers would gather signatures in Dunoon after the press conference. But it soon became clear that locals had not been informed, and were not receptive to the programme's goals.

"The people are calm now," said Sarah Gwele, a volunteer for the community organisation South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco). "If you get them started, if you mention the name xenophobia, it's gonna go boom," she said.

Gwele lives in Dunoon with her two children and her husband, who is from Namibia.

"That's why I'm scared," she said.

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town Stephen Breslin and Deputy Police Commissioner Nathi Dladla were among the first to sign the petition, which volunteers will distribute to schools and churches throughout the country. People can also sign it online.

Even though he signed the petition, Dladla dismissed recent reports of xenophobic attacks as "just rumours".

"We haven't received any cases reported to police that are xenophobic per se," he said.

But a crowd of women standing across the street from where the press conference was held were not interested in signing anything protecting them. "They never signed anything to come into this country," said one woman.

Passop's Braam Hanekom was rebuffed when he tried to talk to the women.

"At the end of the day, we're not expecting everyone to sign," he said, "but they haven't been engaged yet."

The SA National Civics Organisation's (Sanco) Sam Ndzunga agreed, pointing to the widespread support of Ghana during the World Cup as evidence that Africans could unite.

Black Sash programme manager Nyembezi Nkosikhulule said Unite As One was not just about signing a piece of paper, but about committing to action.

"We must dispel intolerance and ignorance," he said.